The Orlando Magic may have won less than a quarter of their games in the 2012-13 NBA season, but for a team with so few wins, there are many reasons Magic fans are optimistic that Rob Hennigan can rebuild this team into a contender.
How could it be that the league's cellar dwellers have such a bright future? Do the Magic have assets, both seen and yet-to-be-seen, that could make them a far better team much sooner than most realize?
It was understood there would be a regression when the Magic were forced into dealing three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. Howard had helped the Magic become a contending team during his time in Orlando, and the team unexpectedly reached the Finals in 2009. It was a team with a specific plan built around Howard.
The rebuilding effort is hardly as orchestrated, but the simple "amass talent and picks" plan has its foothold, and Rob Hennigan's collection of young talent and draft picks is the foundation for a plan that should return the Magic to contention within the next three-to-five seasons.
What did the Magic Obtain for Dwight Howard?
The incoming package in the four-team Howard deal brought the Magic a hodgepodge of players and picks, but few thought that the Magic made out well in the deal. The problem with evaluating deals immediately after they occur is that many of the assets rebuilding teams acquire in these types of deals don't show their full dividends until seasons later.
With a second-year Nikola Vucevic, an unproven Maurice Harkless and veteran Arron Afflalo coming in as the three main chips, analysts and fans both wondered what Hennigan saw in the acquisitions.
These were the three first-round picks the Magic acquired, but why did Hennigan seek the deal that sent Howard to the Lakers, instead of the seemingly more favorable offer extended to him by Daryl Morey and the Rockets?
Fast forward six months, and we have answers to these questions: Vucevic was ranked the 11th-best bargain in the league by Grantland's Bill Simmons.
He's developed into one of the league's finest young big men, and watching the 22-year-old quickly reveals why: he's coordinated, has soft touch and great basketball instincts, and he plays hard. In a matchup earlier this season against the Miami Heat on Dec 31, Vucevic grabbed a single-game Orlando Magic record 29 rebounds, while also scoring 20 points on 9-of-17 shooting.
Vucevic has had 16 games with 15 rebounds or more, and the 6'10" center averages a double-double (12.6 points per game and 11.6 rebounds). Planting a player with Vucevic's skill set and potential in the middle gives the Magic a lot of hope, but it isn't just the Swiss' talent that gives Magic fans hope.
Vucevic is one piece in an Orlando Magic frontcourt that could soon become one of the best in the Association. The aforementioned Harkless, as well as rookie Andrew Nicholson and the newly acquired Tobias Harris, give the Magic a strong rotation at the 3, 4, and 5 spots.
Harkless appears to be a right-handed incarnation of former Magic player Stacey Augmon. He's cut in the mold of a defensive stopper, but his athleticism should render him an effective scorer in time. Even at just 19 years of age, the St. John's product is already averaging 11.5 points per 36 minutes, and he's posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 13.3, which is approaching the league average after just 54 NBA starts.
How Good is Tobias Harris?
Adding to the defensive talents of Harkless is the natural scoring ability of Tobias Harris. Harris was acquired as the main piece in the deal that sent J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks. After Rob Hennigan traded Redick, many wondered why he sold off his best trade asset at such low cost, but these worries quickly dissolved as Harris made his Orlando debut.
In his 22 games with the Magic, Harris has posted 15.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
Donning the same No. 12 as the former franchise player, it's appropriate that Harris embodies much of the same hope Howard gave the Magic. In Harris, many see a younger Carmelo Anthony, a prototypical forward in today's era who can score on small forwards and power forwards due to his versatility, strong upper body and his ability to stretch the court.
Harris is a player without a true position, but much like Anthony, it likely won't halt his progress. Harris recorded five double-doubles in March 2013, and he had five games with 20-plus points, including a 30-point, 11-rebound game against the Washington Wizards on March 29.
Harris played 40 minutes or more in nine games during the month, and his PER in Orlando is 15.5. Hennigan likely noticed that his per-minute production had already been on this level for his first season-and-a-half in the league, and cashed in on a low-risk investment that looks as though it will pay off immensely.
The fourth man in the rotation, St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson, is an old-school kind of throwback player whose ability to stretch the court could make him an attractive rotation big man, even several years from now when this team begins to peak.
Nicholson played in the 2013 Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star weekend with Vucevic, and while he has a few glaring deficiencies, most rookies do. If Nicholson becomes a more alert defender and cuts down on turnovers, he should at the minimum become the type of player whom the Magic can feel fulfilled the potential of the 19th overall pick in 2012.
What Gives the Magic a Chance at Contending Again Soon?
The strength of the Magic frontcourt alone is enough to inspire hope that the team will rebound (pun intended) quickly from the fate of a complete rebuild.
They have some nice assets to carve the future, too: Glen Davis, Jameer Nelson and perhaps most especially Arron Afflalo, all players whose purpose could best be served on a contending team.
While Afflalo is a player Hennigan has been high on since obtaining, he is 27 years old, and by the time the Magic are knocking on the door of the playoffs, the UCLA product will be exiting his prime.
The main focus of Hennigan at this point really isn't on trading guys like Afflalo, or even Nelson and Big Baby. The Magic and all of the league's rebuilding teams are looking forward to the 2014 NBA Draft.
The crop is said to be the best since the vaunted 2003 class which brought LeBron James and company, and the Magic are almost certainly lottery bound in 2014, too.
Duke commit Jabari Parker and Canadian Andrew Wiggins are both players in the 2014 crop who have franchise potential. They are expected to go first and second, respectively, according to NBADraft.net's 2014 mock, and either could transform the Magic into a contender quicker than if they were to strike out on a high pick. But even if they don't land a top-two pick, there are a host of highly regarded prospects.
The Magic will also have their lottery pick in this year's 2013 draft, but Ric Bucher (@RicBucher) told me several GMs have called it the "weakest in decades." The Magic may seek to move out of the draft if they can find a favorable deal. Should they keep their pick, Michigan's Trey Burke has to be the best option at this point, given both the Magic's need and Burke's skill set.
Essentially, he's a surefire replacement for Jameer Nelson and the kind of talent who could potentially be the best in his class, but even the guys who were said to be franchise players in this draft have seen their stock decrease. The Magic will choose between Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Nerlens Noel of Kentucky, Indiana's Cody Zeller and possibly even Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA.
What Can the Magic do in Free Agency?
Beyond the talent already in place and the draft picks is the fact that the Magic will be far below the cap after the 2013-14 season has concluded. But it still may make the most sense to wait until the summer of 2015 to spend the bucks.
Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving (qualifying offer), LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love and Marc Gasol will all be free agents. Any of these players could help return the Magic to contention, and all but Gasol can be considered franchise talents.
Love is almost unarguably the league's best power forward when healthy, and pairing the league's best rebounder in Love with Vucevic's abilities to snatch boards will set the Magic up strong on the interior as their team begins to take shape.
Rondo and Irving are both top-five point guards and can enhance the talent that surrounds them.
Aldridge and Gasol are just both very solid players and perennial All-Star types. The Portland Trail Blazers will be unlikely to relinquish what they've built with Aldridge and rookie Damian Lillard, and the Wolves, Celtics and Grizzlies won't want to lose their key players, either.
But these things happen all the time. Players leave. And the Magic wouldn't regret spending a max-contract on any of those five players.
Briefly consider what the lineup could be by that point (before the addition of a max contract):
Point Guard: Marcus Smart or Trey Burke
Shooting Guard / Small Forward: Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker / Maurice Harkless
Power Forward: Tobias Harris / Andrew Nicholson
Center: Nikola Vucevic
The Magic could benefit from such players at any of the five positions, yet have no definitive weaknesses. That's the internal skeleton of a team that's capable of taking on a max-contract talent (or two) and making major waves in the Eastern Conference.
By 2015-16, the Miami Heat's dynasty should be concluding, as the new wave of contenders begin to take shape.
What Can Be Expected Long-Term?
It's hard to imagine much beyond a nucleus, once we move a few years into the future, but that's a core that shapes up to be a playoff team. The playoffs seem like nothing but a distant dream to most Magic fans right now, who've witnessed their team go just 7-45 since beginning the 2012-13 season.
Drawing optimism from watching a team that loses by an average of 6.7 points per game is difficult, but some of the pieces necessary to become a legitimate force in this league are already in place. Others will come in time.
Doubters will be a-plenty with any rebuilding team, but there's a reason fans trust Magic GM Rob Hennigan: This plan has already worked before. Hennigan was one of the key architects in the drafting of the Oklahoma City Thunder's championship contending team.
The simple plan of tearing down the entire house and allowing the team to shape itself through a lot of lottery picks and reliance on players who are still playing on a rookie contract is an approach that has the quickest potential to build a true contending team.
And it's not like any fan clamors to be a part of an effort that continually yields mediocre postseason results. To make the glitter and glam return to the Amway Center, the Magic must start at ground zero. The only two Finals appearances in franchise history were guided by No. 1-overall draft picks. Who will be the next Shaquille O'Neal or Dwight Howard for the Magic?
Whomever it is, Magic fans will embrace the next franchise talent and hope that he doesn't jet from Central Florida when his rookie contract expires. Magic fans have seen a familiar theme, and are hoping Hennigan's effort to bring a championship banner to Orlando is the first successful attempt in franchise history.
Advanced Stats Sourced from Basketball-Reference.com and accurate as of April 7, 2013.